Saturday, 15 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 4: Now It's Your Turn!

So now you want to be a traveller, huh?

This may surprise you, but the hardest thing about long term backpacking is not deciding what to bring or how to prepare for it; it's simply overcoming your fear and deciding to do it. So if you've decided to go, congratulations! The hardest part is really over, and it only gets easier from here.

There are many considerations and loose ends to wrap up at home before leaving on such a journey. Get travel insurance (I paid about $400), get your vaccinations at a travel clinic, and pack. So what do you want to pack? I packed (including on my person) about 7 pairs of underwear, two t-shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of flip-flops, and one pair of sturdy shoes on my feet (barefoot trail running shoes, not for everyone). My most sturdy and reliable garment was my soft-shell Marmot jacket that packs light and small.
Me in my lovely orange Marmot jacket and only pair of jeans.
If you plan on doing lots of shopping on your travels, I would suggest packing with the ultimate bare necessities. My sister made the mistake of overpacking, and could barely buy anything during the trip.

For my security and peace of mind, I found it really handy to bring locks of many kinds: small zipper locks for the backpacks, one combo lock, for hostel lockers, and one extendable wire lock, for tying your main backpack to bedposts in hostels or luggage racks on trains. My favourite stealth item was my slim pouch that fit on a shoulder and tummy strap to the side of my torso, under my shirt. Uncomfortable at first, eventually it became a part of my body and I no longer noticed it was there. This pouch held my passport, cash and cards away from the prying hands of thieves, or even would-be credit card phone scanners. A few more recommended items include a universal charger and a pocket flashlight. All this equipment is available at MEC.

All of the above packed easily into a 65 litre backpack, along with a lot of other things I brought as just-in-case items which were later deemed useless. But because I decided to be an electronics junkie, bringing my Nikon D90 with 3 lenses and a laptop, I had to carry a pretty big packpack on my chest to fit everything. While I do recommend bringing a daypack I would not bring one as big as mine. And a laptop isn't all that necessary either. Many hostels have computers with internet, though the keyboards may have a foreign configuration. I'm not a smartphone advocate, but in this case, I will be. A smartphone is the perfect travelling companion, a substitute for camera and laptop in a small package.

Once on the road, your urban survival skills will kick into action. No matter what kind of advice I give you, you may forget it all when you become lost and panic starts taking over. Have a notebook for writing notes for finding places. Print out maps when leaving one city for the next. Most hostels have printers and, if not, internet shops will be close by. The first place you should visit in a new city is the tourist information office to grab a tourist map and transit map.
I've met some of the most interesting people and made good friends through Couchsurfing
While it's nice to have a Lonely Planet for every place you visit, it starts to weigh down your pack. I stuck with Tripadvisor (I'm a Top Contributor by the way, 104 reviews), hostel advice, and free walking tours (tips afterward). For accommodation I use Hostelworld.com, which has the most comprehensive hostel reviews of any other website, although it charges a small fee for booking. I still use it because I am loyal, but Hostelbookers.com can book for free, and has access to most of the same hostels. And of course, there is Couchsurfing, which I recommend if you are truly into cultural exchange and are interested in meeting local people wherever you travel.

Getting around within cities, walking is best when possible. It is the most human way to get to know a city. Metros are best for public transport, and buses are okay, but take time to get used to.
Hitchhiking rocks!
Travelling from city to city can be a bit tricky because of the range of comfort and costs can be great. I think the method you choose here really defines you as a traveller. I trade in comfort for cost, opting for buses and hitchhiking, which makes me a bit of a hobo. But there's absolutely nothing wrong with trains and planes. In fact, plane travel can be super cheap if you can deal with barebones airlines such as Ryanair, Easyjet, AirBerlin and more. Be warned that these airlines charge for all extras, including check-in luggage. And if you don't bring your printed boarding pass, they can print you one off for 70 euros! For travel from Canada to the UK, I recommend booking through CanadianAffair.com. It's super cheap, if you don't mind booking your flight only a few weeks in advance.

For shorter distances, trains are comfortable, and night trains can offer beds. My sister and I began our trip with a Eurail pass covering 5 preselected countries in 2 months. I soon found out this was not at all worth it unless you are covering long distances and on the move frequently, in other words, you are on a whirlwind fast-paced Eurotrip. Pretty soon, I discovered a much cheaper, though slightly less comfortable, alternative - the bus. Buses connect almost every major city in Europe and are flexible, offering almost daily departures. Bus companies with the most widespread coverage are Eurolines and the Megabus (very cheap).

So I guess you have the basic knowledge now to get started. Really sorry for this quick and dirty advice column. I really do recommend you talk to me or an experienced traveller and soak in as much advice and wisdom as you can. But I also do stress that travelling is learning on the go, and that even if you go into the scary world unprepared, as long as you don't make any fatal mistakes, and give yourself plenty of time to overcome obstacles, and bring patience and a positive attitude, you will always get where you want to go safely and grow into a more confident, resourceful person.
Dream big - shoot for the moon - the brightest moon I have seen, Morocco desert
Thank you so much for reading my blog "11 Months To Do Nothing and Everything." This blog has grown as my heart and my mind has grown. As I saw the beauty of the world unfold before me, I felt compelled to share, and you were compelled to listen. As I began to realize its potential, it transformed into a vehicle for ideas and inspiration.

And although this adventure is over, I feel another one is just beginning. My travels have unleashed in me a spirit of unlimited potential, which cannot be trapped by the temptations of a normal life in a gilded cage.

So stay tuned. My original blog will be back, but under a new title. Thanks again for reading, and happy travels to you!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 3 - Travelling Is The Best Education

Looking back on the past 5 years of my life, starting with my move to Calgary, I have learned so much living on my own and having the freedom to pursue my dreams. Looking back on the past year alone, I have learned just as many life skills and invaluable lessons. Indeed, traveling is the best education.

Don't be offended University of Waterloo, this is not a jab against you and your world class engineering program. You provided me the skills to be successful in my career, and for that I am thankful. But no amount of theory in calculus or physics of structures can make me social, creative and altruistic. And no amount of late night studying and standard testing can teach me passion and optimism, or help me see all the beauty there is in this world.

No amount of school can provide me the tools to be truly successful in life. This job is for traveling. Traveling takes you outside of your comfort zone, then expands it like a balloon. It introduces new cultures, then nurtures acceptance of different people and ways of living. It inspires you with its natural beauty, then grounds you with the simple miracles of everyday life. Being somewhere new connects you in the most intimate way possible with the people and the surroundings, unlike any desktop wallpaper or travel documentary can.

I may have amassed an encyclopedia's worth of random and mostly useless facts about Europe, such as how many assassination attempts were made on Hitler, how many atom bombs the Chernobyl released, what Finnish university students wear when they party, how to say "thank you" and "cheers" in most languages, as well as Australasian lingo such as "jandals" and "bogans."

I have also learned many important life lessons from traveling. I hope to carry these with me forever, and to sprinkle a little bit of my wisdom on every blooming flower I encounter along my life path. You, my readers, are always blooming. So, here, let me sprinkle some of my most significant words of wisdom on you:

Life is beautiful. Beauty is everywhere, it's in the streets, in the people and the trees, or in the warm sun and the cool wind, or in a simple home cooked meal. However, often times we choose not to acknowledge these simple pleasures and instead focus on the negative things in our lives.

Everyone needs some time alone. Both solitude and 24/7 companions have been a staple in my travels. Through it all I discovered that there is a fine line between being alone and being around people. Chris McCandless in Into The Wild is the extreme case of a hermit who dreamt big but eventually went crazy, isolating himself from people and finding solace in the wilderness. In contrast to Chris are people who fear being alone and always need company. These people also lose the ability to think for themselves, because people's voices are constantly drowning out their own internal voice.

Anything is possible. We all have control of our own paths in life. Yet many people are steered by family or peer expectations. As soon as you start measuring yourself by others' standards, you fail yourself. So take time to be alone, and listen to your own thoughts. The more you do this, the more independent you become.

A little help goes a long way. When you're lost and alone in a vast scary country where everyone speaks a different language and just looks at you funny, you're forever grateful to receive help. After receiving lots of help from friendly foreigners, I am ready to do the same back in Canada. I've already picked up two hitchhikers, and had interesting conversations as a result.

Hospitality is friendship. This is the ultimate way to help someone. Couchsurfing has taught me that opening your home to people breaks down invisible walls between people, creating instant friendship. So why does this occur so infrequently in modern society? Maybe because our home has become an overprotected space of privacy filled with valuable possessions, making us mistrustful of strangers. We would rather meet people in more superficial places like coffeeshops or bars. No wonder why poorer countries generally have better hospitality. And why they have less coffeeshops.

Wisdom is gained through real life experiences. It's not gained through textbooks or television, newspapers or hearsay. It's gained through being, doing and trying it yourself.

So go out and do it! My last blog will give you some basic tips to get started backpacking through Europe, in the hopes that someday you will take the leap.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 2 - The Happiness Project

We all know that happiness is a function of time and money. The majority of people today place a greater emphasis on money. I did at one point too. But the most valuable lesson I learned, for myself and many others I have met on my travels, is that time has a much stronger effect on producing happiness than money.

My interpretation of happiness uses the simple equation below:

happiness = timen X money
n = an unknown exponent which places greater emphasis on time

This is the ultimate equation to everything in life and with respect to travelling, it works two fold. If you have more time, you will not only increase your happiness but you will also reduce the amount of money you spend.

However, in today's reality, most people cannot devote enough time to travel and, instead, spend excessive amounts of money to make up for it. Really, the problem starts with the short vacations permitted from work. While it is still possible to take your time on short vacations, the temptation of knocking off as many bucket list items as possible is too alluring.

I even admit my own pace was super-quick and exhausting when I began my travels. But I slowly realized that it was more fulfilling to take my time (all of which I was so blessed to be granted for work) and maximize every moment, instead of spreading my energies thinly across these moments, enjoying each one less. So I changed my pace.

I left early and walked to the museum instead of taking transit, enjoying a leisurely stroll, observing the local culture on the street and people-watching along the way. I took the bus versus train, which takes more time but is much cheaper. In the extreme case, I hitchhiked, which usually takes the most time and patience, but I traveled virtually for free, and ended up having nice conversations with my drivers, thereby increasing my happiness.

In the future I will try, somehow, to travel even slower, and at some point in my life, I want to do some cycle touring. Riding a bike across a country is very alluring to me, especially because it is a slow way to see and understand a country. So I guess my point is...

Take. Your. Time!

This is my ultimate lesson for you folks and, believe it or not, it not only maximizes happiness but saves money. I really can't stress this enough!

It is important to note that the debate about whether time or money is important for happiness is an impossible one. In the end everyone has their own approach. But I do suspect that more people in the world are fooled into thinking that money is more important time than vice versa.

At least in North America, my prevailing observation is that most people are overworked, busy and tired, while still blowing most of their cash on things that produce fleeting happiness. In Europe I get more of the sense that people worry less about money, and spend more time on simple yet important things such as food or good company, and they are overall more relaxed, less stressed and complain less.

Have a nice day. And I hope today that you take your time in whatever you do =)

Friday, 7 June 2013

Wise Words from a World Wanderer, Part 1 - I Perspire to Inspire

The End of 10 Months, The Beginning of a New Me...
Me in the beginning - colourless, hairless
After all this time that you, my faithful readers have been following me around on my adventures through Europe it's about time that I admit this: my apologies for the slight deception in my blog title. Although I did take an 11 month sabbatical from work, my time out of country has actually been 10 months - 303 days to be precise. Hopefully, this is neither earth-shattering nor credibility-eroding news (you know by now that my blog is not a means to massage my own vanity). Anyway, I believe that in all other aspects of my travel journalism, I have been straight as an arrow, blunt in honesty, sharp in wit, and forcefully thought provoking.

I don't know why you follow my blog, but I do know why I write: not to shine glory on myself as a travelling wunderkind and bask in your awe, adoration and jealousy (well, maybe just a bit). No, not that. I write to open your minds, to dispel stereotypes, to broadcast the true beauty and diversity of the world, to bring awareness to your conscience, to inspire and ultimately motivate you to change and improve yourself. And hopefully whatever little changes I create in you will ripple out and affect those around you and maybe, in the end, this world will be a better place.

I hope I have achieved these goals, or my blog was for naught.

One request I received was to write a blog about how to save money while travelling through Europe. I have decided not to blog about this because it is not one of the goals of my blog. However, I do ask that you contact me directly if you are looking for specific advice on this matter. The only thing I will write here is that the most important step is simply to start travelling. Once you do, you will quickly learn ways to save money and also learn what you are capable of doing in order to save.
Me in the middle 
Your travelling style may also change to focus on cheaper, more fulfilling activities. For me, the best memories of my trip were not of museums and churches, or beaches and parties. They were working on a farm, teaching English, meeting great people, learning and expanding my mind; they were times of challenging and inspiring myself, detaching from the real world and immersing in a dream world as just a guy with a backpack.

10 months was long enough for me to become detached from home and reinvent myself. Yet - not completely and utterly so. Occasionally the ominous deadline of June 2013 loomed over my travel planning, like a pinprick of light at the end of an immensely long hallway, barely discernible but clearly present, and growing larger by the day. It loomed heavily at times, enough to not feel completely free to go everywhere I wanted.

Some of you may think why the hell I spent my entire travels in just Europe, Turkey and Morocco. At times, I also thought this myself. But the fact of the matter is that even within 10 months of travelling around one of the tiniest smallest continents, I barely scratched the surface of Europe. There is so much natural and cultural diversity here, it could take a lifetime to see it all. And if I had but one regret, it's that I didn't spend long enough during every stop along the way.
Me by the end - colourful, hairier, wiser
Which leads me to my first life lesson learned...

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

My 10 Months In Europe Top 5's

Here are some of my top 5 lists for places visited or experiences during my travels.

I admit these rankings are far from perfect. I used a balanced approach to include personal opinion and to make unbiased recommendations for you, the viewer, to decide your next travel destination. Rankings were spread out geographically, in order to highlight as many different parts of Europe as possible, and sometimes underdogs were picked to bring attention to little known places.

That is why you will notice that my rankings do not include the most popular countries and cities in Europe, such as London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, etc. You already know about these places, thus, I preferred to highlight other lesser known great travel destinations.

Controversy dogged me in every category. In the end these rankings were painstaking to compile, and I flip flopped many times, eventually forced to exclude many places worthy of a ranking. Even now, I'm still not sure about the results. Nevertheless...

Over my 10 months of travels, in no particular order, here are my top 5 rankings for:

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Waiting for the End

I spent the final 3 days of my trip in London on a stopover to slowly wind down my trip. Like the weather, my mood was somber. Like the London fog, an air of sadness and emptiness was hanging over my head, clouding my thoughts.

To distract myself, I spent time in London with friends whom I had met abroad. But when I was alone in my friend's flat or walking along the south bank of the Thames, admiring Tower Bridge and Big Ben, long spells of vast silence would overcome me, and it felt like I was the only person in London. It was like being stuck in some parallel dimension between traveling and real life.


Over 10 months I became completely detached from real life, grown accustomed to spontaneity and adventure, lost all concept of time, and adopted the road as my new home. But soon I will be once again enslaved by routine, no longer able to wake up whenever I want, no longer living out of just a backpack, but tied down by my condo, car and material goods. I wasn't sure if I was ready for it yet.


At times my trip felt like a movie, and now that the movie is over, I was the only one sitting in the theatre after everyone left and went home. But I was afraid to go home to reality. Going home meant abandoning all the places I visited and friends I made, and memory wouldn't be enough to hold onto them.

One other thought haunted me. Coming home, I was afraid of how I would fit back into society. While on the outside I have not changed much, besides having longer, slightly more grey hair, and more wrinkles (wisdom lines as I call them), on the inside I have changed immeasurably. My previously outlying views on philosophy and society have become stretched further from my travel experiences. While family and friends will welcome my return with open arms, I am afraid I will feel like an outsider.

At 4 pm on May 21, I finally landed back on Canadian soil and my trip officially ended. I am still in Montreal, so still not quite home yet, but everything feels familiar, and I'm starting to feel positive again. Time will tell how I fit back into the real world, but in the meantime I have the comfort of great memories from 303 days of the most amazing trip of my life and the knowledge that there is a beautiful inspiring world out there, ready and waiting for me to explore it.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

From Russia With... A Fresh Perspective

Often times during my second visit to Russia I got the feeling that I was conducting my own cultural anthropological experiment. The same way famous anthropologists wandered into primeval forests and lived with native tribes in order to understand them, I felt like a pioneer, wandering into a country so vast and significant yet such a mystery, at least among my peers back home, and on a mission to find out the truth about its people.

Here are some of my experiences and anecdotes about Russia with the intention, hopefully, of dispelling certain stereotypes or foster understanding of its people and culture.
Kremlin - the palace of the central government of Russia
Moscow itself is a unique metropolis due to its geopolitical and economic status in Russia and relations with nearby countries. It has a deep history. Today it teems with culture. It is one of the most expensive cities in the world, yet it attracts people from all walks of life from poor illegal immigrants (including prehistoric looking Asians from the -stan countries) to multi-billionaires like Roman Abramovich. Aside from my sidebar to St. Petersburg, I have spent my time wholly in Moscow, wandering and getting to know the city, learning Russian, and meeting people for language and culture exchange.

One stereotype Russians are aware they have, and that they jokingly questioned me about, is that they are serious people. The Russians I met were ashamed to admit that the majority of them never smile on the Metro, and that shopkeepers are brutal and straightforward, and don't understand the concept of customer service.

Well, I think the former complaint can be excused, after all it's an urban big city phenomenon. I feel that people are generally less friendly (and in more of a hurry) the bigger the city, based on my experiences throughout Europe and even in Canada. And Moscow is the biggest city I have ever visited, with estimates of its population between 12 and 19 million. So it is no surprise that people are less friendly here. In addition, I was told people are friendlier in the countryside of Russia.
One super friendly Russian - my Couchsurfing friend Vitalak

Pretending I can play guitar with Vitalak's replica of Flea's guitar from Red Hot Chili Peppers
While most of my Russian friends are not heavy drinkers, Russians are generally known as such. While I didn't notice much heavy drinking, quite often, I've seen people with a beer in their hand while walking down the street, sitting on benches in parks, in the Metro and on the bus. It's a curious phenomenon to witness, as someone from a country where drinking in public is illegal (it is in Russia too, but never enforced). At least it seems that public drinking is done responsibly and respectabley.

Like friendliness level, alcohol consumption increases in the rural areas. I've been told Russians don't just drink vodka either; they drink anything and everything. It's just that vodka is the most common and cheapest liquor available. Apparently poor airport workers in Siberia even know of a way to separate alcohol from antifreeze...
Lenin's Tomb in Red Square - he is still a hero amongst older Russians; not as much amongst the younger

Corruption is still a problem here in Russia. And it starts at the very top. Its current president, Putin, has secured a stronghold on the presidency through less than integral means. And anyone who crosses Putin will likely be punished, whether it's nosy journalists, outspoken celebrities, or the general public. I may even be on his black list now for these comments.

There's a running joke made famous following a recent political election. The election was rigged, but exposed itself on TV when a voting poll mistakenly totaled 146%. Now whenever a Russian is quite certain of something, they sometimes say they are 146% sure.
Screenshot from the rigged election. Total voting = 146,47%
This corruption trickles down to street level and can be observed in police enforcement. Cops can stop you anywhere without reason, slap you with a ghost fine, then hint at a bribe in exchange for your freedom. I was randomly asked for my passport by a cop at a Metro station. But did I really look like a suspicious character in my bright orange jacket and a bright multicoloured toque?

On the bright side, when cops aren't out for your money, they are pretty slack about the laws. People can drink just about anywhere, and cars can virtually do whatever they want on the road in Russia. My driver to St. Petersburg stopped on the highway shoulder after missing an offramp and backed all the way up to catch it. My favourite road scene is seeing cars towed by other cars, tied by means of a simple rope, to avoid hiring tow trucks.
Posing near the Kremlin on my last full day in Moscow

This unique twist of freedom, among other things, is what makes Russia a fascinating and beautiful country. It's the only place where I've seen local food markets selling vegetables past its prime at discount rates, preventing waste. The general disregard of rules allows the Russian version of Facebook, vKontakte, to stream music, outright ignoring copyright laws. Besides this, Russia is amazingly diverse, with tens or hundreds of small culturally unique tribes or "republics" living in mountain regions of the south, and up in the frozen north. It's moving up the world stage, set to host Sochi Winter Olympics and, soon after, the World Cup. If they don't remove barriers to obtaining tourist Visas by then, if you are willing to endure the complications of getting the Visa, I recommend going to check out this country which is far down most peoples' travel lists.

I think the general North American view of Russians is confined to a few stereotypes, which are not so flattering. I was eager to play journalist, to dispel these negative stereotypes, or at the very least uncover the cause of them. After all, we are all humans that have simply grown up in different environments and become accustomed to them.
Another one of my many awesome Couchsurfers in Moscow - thanks Philip and Yulia!
Russia's roughness around the edges is part of its slow and sometimes painful smoothing out process from a long, embattled 20th century of political oppression and war. People haven't forgotten the Soviet Times, which shaped who they are today. In fact I often heard sentences beginning with "In Soviet Russia..." However, generation by generation, the bitterness and pessimism from the past is fading from memory. The people are sometimes harsh, but at least they are honest and unabashed, and definitely very interesting to talk to.

Russia has grown on me the more time I have spent here, especially Moscow and the many great people I have met here. I would love to come back to spend more time and visit other cities, and even experience the wildnerness of Siberia. But for now, it's mission accomplished...

I'm coming back to Canada!

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157633532243018/
Bonus picture for fans of Master & Margarita! - Patriarch's Pond

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Last Stop - St. Petersburg

Ladies and gentleman, it's been nearly 10 months since the last time I set foot in Canada. Since then I've visited many cities and been to many attractions. You have followed me along my course, become jaded with me, maybe even became bored of the same old pictures of architecture and cityscapes that I became bored of in person.
Church of Our Savior stands down one of the canals
As glamorous as it is to travel, it all becomes too much at some point. And yet you just can't stop while you're ahead. This is the problem I faced upon visiting St. Petersburg, the final "tourist" destination of my travels: could I enjoy it without getting bored?

St. Petersburg is rather unique. Founded by Peter the Great just over 300 years ago, it is pretty young by European standards. Yet it flourished and developed, and today is one of the biggest cities in Europe at over 5 million, and a centre of culture and arts. The city is adorned with lovely canals and, as per usual, impressive palaces, cathedrals and monuments.
St. Petersburg - 670 km!
Surprisingly, transportation between Moscow and St. Petersburg is very expensive and with few alternatives. So I resorted to a method I hadn't used in months - hitchhiking. Fortunately, I started early, because after a disastrous first 5 hours, in which 3 cars and 1 bus took me barely 100 km, I was finally saved by a kind man named Dennis, who took me the rest of the 600 km in about 7 hours. Long day!

The day after I arrived, St. Petersburg was alive and the streets were buzzing at a feverish pitch. It was May 9, Victory Day of the Great Patriotic War. Now without descending into a full blown history lesson, you should at least know that this war is probably known to you as World War II. However, ex-Soviet countries call it the Great Patriotic War, and it only encompasses Russian involvement. Thus, the start of GPW was the day Germany invaded Russia in 1941, and the final date was when Russia captured Berlin on May 9, 1945, NOT the day Japan surrendered after the dropping of the atomic bomb.
May 9 - Victory Day Parade

Anyway, May 9 was a good day to be out on the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, or any major city in Russia. There was a Victory Parade in the afternoon, then in the evening there were also fireworks, and many of the main streets were closed down so that pedestrians filled the streets, chanting and singing with pride.
Fireworks seen from a packed bridge
Besides the festivities, I managed to see two pretty memorable museums. One local treasure was the miniature museum, which illustrated Russia in one massive papier-mache incredibly detailed landscape brought to life with miniature buildings and people. It even had moving trains and cars, and a real time traffic control system for these mini vehicles, operated by staff behind a window. As an engineer, wow!

The other museum I saw was the Hermitage, the second largest museum in the world. Quite resembling the Louvre, the interior is decorated like the best palaces in Europe, with grand hallways covered with frescoes, statues, gold trim and finely ornamented. The museum's collection houses millions of items, mostly paintings and artifacts of European origin. I braved over 2 hours in the rain lining up for this beast. And, well, it was worth it.
Standing in line for the Hermitage - lady in umbrella says it all
As a jaded tourist, I couldn't be bothered to pay the extra 200 rubles, or about 5 euros, for the right to take photos. Nor could I bother to search out any featured paintings or statues in the massive complex. Thus, I discarded the map and wandered aimlessly, like a kid in a neverending candy shop.

In similar fashion, the rest of my time in St. Petersburg was spent walking. I've learned that walking is the best way to get to know a city. That and avoid spending money on attractions that are ultimately forgettable. Curiously, clamoring around St. Petersburg's streets, I felt like Raskolnikoff, the main character in Dostoevsky's thrilling Crime and Punishment, which I am not so coincidentally currently reading.
Neva River, which adds to the beauty of St. Petersburg
Despite all the goodies mentioned above, my time in St. Petersburg was ambivalent. In my jaded state, I probably enjoyed this city more like a bored fool than a wide eyed camera toting tourist. Besides, other external matters played a part in my moodiness, such as bad weather and painful feet.

But what right do I have to complain? None, really. I owe nothing except gratitude for being a tourist for so long. With this in mind, I can rightfully conclude that St. Petersburg is a pretty great city and one highly recommended by myself.

As I write this, I am back in Moscow living out my days as a free man, back in less than 2 weeks. And though I will be glad to come home, a part of me will wish I was still living out of a suitcase, checking famous cities and big museums off my bucket list.

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157633476998440/
Contemplative walk along the Neva River, last night of St. Petersburg

Friday, 19 April 2013

Off To Where the Sun Sets on Europe

Check one off the bucket list.

Having seen the majority of mainland Western Europe, I felt reluctantly obligated to see Portugal. Given a lucky window of opportunity, waiting two weeks for my Visa to Russia to process while in Madrid, instead of waiting around, I packed my bags once again and headed west.
Apparently you can buy love in Lisboa
But I did much more than just "knock Portugal off the list." In fact, I had a really great time there!

Portugal gets as little attention as central and eastern Europe but after visiting it I see why it is a rising star of tourism in Europe. Lisboa (Lisbon), the capital city, is a city that has it all, tied up in a neat little package. It has all the traits of a historical European city, castle on a hill overlooking a romantic old city by the water, plus it also offers many modern attractions and provides a good base for day trips to the countryside.
Mirador (lookout) of Lisboa
While I am not a shopper, I love visiting markets to see what the locals have to offer. In Lisboa, I was ready to throw my wallet at everything I saw. The second-hand markets, set up in first rate outdoor spaces in the city, sold absolutely anything and everything the slightest bit useful or desirable, from old plastic toys to film cameras and rusting silverware. If you are looking for new things, there are markets thriving with creative energy for the arts and crafts from jewellery and household decorations down to keychains and postcards. In fact, the Iberian Peninsula which includes Spain showcases the best arts and crafts in Europe. I managed to fish a few dollars out to buy my first magnets of the trip.

From Lisboa, I made a few day trips. My first day trip was to Cascais, a little oceanside town full of villas and yachts, to join a Couchsurfing photowalk event, and to get my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. My second day trip was to picturesque Sintra, complete with a dreamy Disney-like castle on a hill, and a view of the westernmost point of mainland Europe.
Castle at Sintra
I also had some of the best seafood of my trip in a little hideaway restaurant that indicated, through no indications at all, that it was a local joint. Eating here reminded me that I always had the best dining experiences by straying off the main street and finding places that didn't want to be found.

From there it was on to sleepy Lagos on the southern coast of Portugal. A day trip took me to Sagres and slightly beyond, to the southwestern most point of mainland Europe where mighty waves crashed into mightier cliffs.
Checking out the cliffs and beaches in Lagos

Back in Lagos, I went on a kayaking tour along its less mighty yet wonderfully abstract cliffs, its red and white hues of rock curving mysteriously, and unveiling pristine beaches in its bosom. The kayak tour stopped at one of the beaches for a rest. While most people were deterred from the water, still dreadfully cold and slow to warm up, it did not stop a Canadian like me from going for a swim! The irony here is that there were other Canadians on the tour who did not even consider dipping a toe in the water.

On my final day in Lagos, one where the sun shone down soothing warmth and with not a cloud in the sky, I descended into a rocky nook on Batatas Beach all to myself, and did some yoga. My mind cleared... bliss, happiness... and nothing needs more to be said about Lagos!

Flickr Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157633271763021/

Also photos from Sevilla: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157633276142490/
Plaza De Espana, Sevilla

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Morocco - A Diamond in the Rough

March 21 was a special day. It was my birthday, it was the day I flew into Madrid to join my friends to go to Morocco, and it also marked nearly 8 months of travelling around Europe.

Now, some of you may say, and fairly so, that my travels have been rather safe. Turkey had eastern flair, but it meets the modernity and security of the west, and Moscow, Russia, though distant and seems mysterious and foreign, has a similar infrastructure, familiar to the cold climate cities of Canada.
The Atlas Mountains - welcome to the desert
Morocco was my first venture into a truly untamed land, one that operates with a minimal emphasis on rules. This Diamond in the Rough has an exotic appeal that makes you feel like you are walking in Disney's Aladdin. Morocco felt like a whole new world... its spectrum of unbelievable-ridiculous to miraculous-beautiful stretches as far as the bright white moon rising in the desert.
A desert ghost, revealed only by moonlight 
Here cars share the road with donkeys hauling carts, people are super friendly, and shopkeepers haggle persistently and persuade like CEOs. The streets of the medinas, the old walled city centres, showcase a dazzling array of wares that glitter from greens to reds to yellows. The surprisingly diverse landscape is blanketed with as many impressive colours - more green than you think.
Stand aside when a donkey is coming through! 
Moroccan food is defined by lots of spices, and is headlined by Berber whiskey, couscous and tajines, which consist of cone shaped pottery cooked by fire. We ate a lot of couscous and tajines and, while it was very good, we started getting sick of it after awhile. It should be noted that Berber Whiskey is just mint tea. You can't find any alcohol within the bustling medinas. Anyhow.. let's get to the story!
Chefchaouen, the Blue City
I travelled with my friends Sam & Claire, English teachers in Madrid, who I met at La Tomatina at the end of last August, which now seems like an eternity ago. We took a flight into Tangier and immediately hopped on a taxi to our first destination, Chefchaouen, nicknamed the Blue City. It's no wonder, with its memorable baby blue walls and doors, papier-mached on a backdrop of a lush green valley while chocolate brown mountains loom above.
This girl started playing with my harmonica 
We instantly received the "friendliness" of the people - colourful-hoodie-wearing Berber shopkeepers waving you into their showrooms, restaurateurs telling you that you're hungry, and even people approaching you and, in a low whisper, offering hash, the best of which originates in the local region surrounding Chefchaouen. We preferred the friendliness of local children. Oh, and the cats too, which there are plenty of wandering the narrow pathways.
"If I fitz I sitz" - Cat in the Basket 
Fez was the most intense experience of possibly all my travels. The city of Fez has the largest medina of any Arab city in the world. Thus, tourists are actually recommended to hire guides to navigate in the medina's thousands of narrow, zigzagging streets. Oh, and also not to wander around at night. This is exactly what we decided to do after we arrived in the evening from Chefchaouen.

Once we got off the main street and entered the medina's maze, we got tailed by two different guys, acting friendly at first. However, several minutes later, when we tried to lose them, they turned sour on us. They began saying very mean things and wouldn't leave us alone. We eventually found our way back to the main street where they finally stopped following and hurling insults at us. Nevertheless, we were traumatized, and I had never been in this state of fear and anxiety at any point in my trip.
Wandering Fez with our favourite guide Rashid! 
Fortunately a new brilliant day followed, and the memory of last night was completely wiped out following our meeting with Rashid. Once again, we were befriended by a local but, while I was still wary, Sam had a good instinct about Rashid and so we let him guide us. Rashid turned out to be an amazing guide and good company too.
Claire, Sam and I trying on Moroccan clothing in Coca, Rashid's sister's shop 
We followed Rashid into donkey sheds and leather workshops including the large tannery. He introduced us to his sister Coca (pronounced kooka) who worked at the family clothing shop, and they even let us try on traditional Moroccan clothing, which is really beautiful. During the entire tour Rashid answered questions about Moroccan life. To top it off, he took us to the high point where we could view the medina in all its glory, brown mud-brick buildings waving up and down with the valley floor, standing like a forest among over 9000 little streets.
Donkey overlooking his medina domain 
Next we went for the overnight Sahara desert 2-day 1-night excursion. While we didn't quite make it into the heart of the desert, it still was an amazing experience from start to finish. The 8-hour drive took us through stunning landscapes that slowly transformed from vibrant greens to lifeless brown and gray rock, to sand. We rode camels into the sunset, getting off at our tent campsite in a beige plain surrounded by mini sand dunes, like waves cresting near the beach.
I got ass-burn from riding camels for 2 hours 
Enter Mohamed, one cool cat. His eyes shone of eternal wisdom (even though he didn't look that old) and his personality crackled through his big smile. Mohamed and his fellow Berbers served us a tajine chicken dinner, then entertained us "Justin Berber" style with singing and drums round the fire under a full moon night. Mohamed invited me to stay longer, maybe live like a Berber, nomads still wandering the desert, one earthly vestige that human civilization has yet to tame. I'm not sure whether his invitation was serious, but I would definitely consider it, especially if I could take care of camels, very charming creatures with really funny faces.
Mohamed is the richest man I know, not in materials, but in happiness, peace, and love of his desert home 
Our last stop was Marrakech, and possibly the best city of our visit. It's one of the bigger cities in the nation of up to 40 million people, and has something for everyone. The shopkeepers here were generally very friendly and relaxed, and I talked to many locals with no worries. I took pictures of some of them and even promised to print out their picture and mail it to them, since they probably don't own cameras or have an e-mail address.
A man surveys the street he's worked on as a shop seller for decades 
Marrakech's main square Jemaa El Fna, was a riot - the very heart of Morocco. This open space is never really "open" as its void is constantly streaming with noise and dust kicked up from taxis, scooters and donkeys, weaving their way carelessly around pedestrians and entertainers such as snake charmers and buskers, further cramped in by food stalls, cafe tables and shop wares.
Cheap and tasty eats outside in Jemaa El Fna. Me in my new Berber hoodie 
We all decided to splurge a little on our final stop, so we went souvenir shopping. I decided to emulate my desert hero Mohamed and bought a Berber hoodie, virtually the exact same as his! I still have to figure out how to bring it home with me, since my luggage is out of space.

Goodbye Morocco!
Sunset on Morocco
While I deviated from my ethics of not travelling by plane, flying from Berlin to Madrid to join Sam and Claire, then flying to and back from Morocco was totally worth it. Before this my trip had been missing something, it was too safe and, thus, boring. Morocco gave it that vibrant feeling of life uncorked, the best and the worst surrounding you so that unpredictability shrouds every turn around a street corner, but no matter what happens, it's new, a little scary, and very exciting.

I can go home now and say I saw it all on my travels. (caution: hyperbole)

Flickr Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157633156426750/
Wacky turbans

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Don't Call Them Eastern Europe

North Americans commonly misuse the term "Eastern Europe" to distinguish from the western European countries that are more ubiquitous with their romantic idea of Europe. Thus, Central Europe gets less attention from would-be travellers infatuated with glorious cultures such as French and Italian. Nevertheless, this region is characterized by a vibrant culture driven by remarkably creative and energetic youth. There is lots to see and do, and all within the confines of a cheap and safe environment.
Vltava River, Praha
The three headed beast of Budapest, Wien and Praha power the engine of Central Europe (well, I'm not actually sure where Central Europe proper is or if there is even an actual defined border for this region). I have a bad habit of calling cities by their local names. So to clarify: Wien, the capital of Austria and home of the wiener, is Vienna. Praha, the capital of Czech Republic, is Prague. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is actually Budape┼čt with a "sh" sound.

Herein is a quick and dirty comparison of my time and impression of each of the cities. I am therefore obligated to give you the standard black-and-white warning message that "the views and opinions expressed here are solely based on my experience and are not stated as facts, nor are they intended to cause offence to the subject parties" and so forth and so forth...

In other words, don't sue me, don't hate me. After all, I'm only writing because you want to read me.

Architecture
Budapest, Wien and Praha are holdovers from the Habsburg Empire of the middle of the second millennium and, thus, share similar architectural styles. Winding streets in the city centres are arranged with colourful buildings of 7 or 8 stories, made of massive interlocking stone blocks that seem to jump out at you. One gets a majestic feeling walking around these cities.

Praha is definitely the prettiest city of the three. In fact, it has maybe the best mix of urban development, topography and green spaces I have seen anywhere in Europe. Its cathedrals stand tall and gothic dark, flanked by buildings with eclectic designs and adornments. Its picturesque river, the Vltava, splits the old city, Staremesto, from the hilly castle side, with grand vistas of the entire city.
Graben pedestrian street, Wien
Wien stuns through sheer grandness and scale. Viewing cathedrals and government buildings require physical exercise - many repetitions of neck craning and jaw dropping. But its open spaces provide the correct viewing angles as they are impressively large and inspire a royal feeling of happy-bliss. At street level, the sidewalks are clean and orderly, a byproduct of German efficiency.

Budapest has a beautiful city centre, characterized by a castle on a hill, overlooking a steady river and an old city. But the city still bears many scars from its communist days. These scars are bandaged within the city centre, but are clearly visible if you enter the suburbs, still blanketed by dull concrete housing. The lack of restoration of the suburbs of Budapest is reflected in Hungary's weak economy.
Duna, or Danube River, Budapest
Culture
Tourists on whirlwind Eurotrips might lump these cities into one category, which is understandable considering their geography, population and cultural similarities such as food. But I think Budapest, Wien and Praha are wonderfully unique. Its the same principle in which people may mistake Calgary and Edmonton for being the same kind of city, or Toronto and Montreal.

Budapest has an unbelievably youthful vibe. It feels as if all the old people decided to move out and let the youth take over. On the streets, in the shops and metros, young people are everywhere, walking with style and a sense of determination, as if they are busy conquering the world. Their spirit and energy has imbued a creative atmosphere that can be seen in its trendy shops and in its trademark nightlife attraction, the ruin bars, which have a rough and edgy feel, and are covered wall-to-wall with eclectic and retro objects.

Wien is the only of the three cities that escaped the Soviet influence of communism and therefore has enjoyed economic prosperity since WWII. Its wealth combined with German efficiency is evident walking around the city. Despite this, Wien has a young and creative energy that has helped to propel it into the rarefied air of one of the most desirable cities in the world to live and work, with one of the highest quality of life ratings. There are many wonderful coffee shops to gather and philosophize, cinemas to enjoy films, and museums to get your think-on.
Charles Bridge, Praha - busker with marionette
Praha is developing a reputation for being the Amsterdam of the east. In Praha, you can party cheap and party hard. I've heard anecdotally that you can get easy access to any drug you desire, and that there is a fairly casual approach to dating. It's easy to see why people party so much here - Czech beers and liquors are some of the best in Europe. Kozel is one of my favourite beers and I believe it is sold internationally. And the Czech national liquor Becherovka is 38% alcohol, but goes down super sweet and smooth.

My Experience
Unfortunately I had to rush through this leg of my journey. I could easily have spent much more time in each of these three cities. As usual, my personal accounts of these cities have nothing to do with the museums and cool buildings, but are defined by the people I met.
First time playing sports in a looong time. I really missed it
In Praha, I had the privilege of staying with someone who could lay claim to being "the most interesting man in the world." This ex-video engineer for the Rolling Stones, ex-army officer, now turned English teacher held a concert on his birthday in which he performed with his rock band. The day after, we participated in indoor beach volleyball, an event which he also organized. My friend could also lay claim to the title of "the messiest man in the world." Though his flat was a sight for sore eyes, it reminded me that his priorities lay in his passions: languages, music and people. I cleaned his dishes for his birthday! I also met up with a friend whom I met a several months earlier, and we had a great chat over our exciting working experiences since our first meeting.
Opera in Wien
In Wien, I stayed with a great Couchsurfing host. He inspired me to find homestays in Buddhist monasteries. Ironically, due to the uninspiring weather, I was able to find some really hip coffee shops to take shelter. Later on, squished in the standing room section of the opera, which is the thing to see in Vienna, I found one of those random encounters which I preached so much about. I made friends with a Latvian English teacher, and afterwards we chatted over McDonald's 1 euro burgers, then the next day over pay-as-you-wish Indian food.
Market in Budapest
Budapest was one of the few cities I visited a second time; also one of the few places I kept meeting really memorable people. I stayed at two different hostels and with two different Couchsurfers, each a fun and positive experience. But I actually did stuff too. By night I frequented ruin bars and, by day, ate at the train station styled market and sauntered up and down the Duna (Danube) River. I even splurged in one of the many secondhand shops. I also went caving, an awesomely fun adventure, and visited the famous hot baths, filled with people of all ages and minimal clothing, to escape the cold weather.

-----

Despite the harsh realities about Budapest, it is a really awesome city. I had an amazing time and will take away some of my best memories of my trip from here. Wien, while it is very posh and proper, especially compared with the casual "no rules" mentality of Praha and Budapest, also has something for everyone. And Praha is simply the place to be to go wild and live life to the max, but also provides enough space for quiet and contemplation.

However this, my dear readers, does not mean I am recommending Budapest to you. One lesson that has continuously repeated itself during my trip is that every place in the world is unique. So I guess what I'm saying is... go to all three!

One end of the Charles Bridge, Praha